Balloon Boy, Baby Jessica and Newsertainment

Raise your hand if you remember Balloon Boy.

I lost what little respect I had left for my News Director that day, when he ordered us to take over regular programming and do a play-by-play of what was assumed to be an out-of-control weather balloon carrying a small child.

We didn’t know at the time that it was a hoax, but the ND jumped on the ‘Can’t miss a breaking story, even it’s not really news or verified’ bandwagon that was a creeping cancer in News Rooms across the country.

What we *did* know was the balloon was coming down from somewhere above 13,000 feet on a cold Colorado morning: It meant the 5-year-old child purported to be inside might have died of hypothermia, or might die on impact falling from such a height.

The News Director – KNOWING it could be coverage of a snuff shot – ordered the anchor on duty to describe a silver Mylar balloon being blown above barren fields as National Guard helicopters followed it, and Sheriff’s SUV’s chased it on the ground.

For 20 agonizing minutes this went on. I vaguely recall trying to get a physics professor on the line to fill time. I probably ended up calling Dr. Bill Wattenburg. It was agonizingly bad radio, I was embarrassed at the content and queasy about being part of a possible snuff shot play-by-play.

I remember CNN was covering it wall-to-wall, and several televisions in the News Room were on the live helicopter feed we were getting from TV downstairs, who was getting it from the ABC affiliate in Denver.

My ND stood with his hands on his head as the balloon crashed into the dirt and hooted out, “Oh! Oh-ho!! Look at that!!” It was so ugly when you realize he thought there was a little boy – the same age as his son – inside the basket of the balloon. Let’s not even talk about how unprofessional or undignified his reaction was.

His ‘spectating the train wreck’ approach to news was giving people a pass for death-voyeurism. He was treating presumed personal tragedy as entertainment.

That was the book (ratings period) we fell from 1st place in the Bay Area for the first time in 30 years, and stopped being the #1 station in the country. It was part of an inexorable downward spiral, as Cumulus picked the bones clean on a great station. First they cleaned the News Room out of the professionals who brought depth to their coverage and who might fight back against such lurid programming. Next they gave their listeners Balloon Boys and Singing Dogs. Finally they wondered why revenue was falling as listeners abandoned the station in droves.

My point is this: Fake News and Bullshit Stories have been around for a while. Balloon Boy himself is rooted in the Baby Jessica story from 1987, which was the start of 24 Hour Coverage of ‘Important Stories’ rather than actual News. It was the unleashing of Voyeurism-is-News school of programming.

CNN (gosh – those call letters again) covered Baby Jessica breathlessly for 2 1/2 days, as the country watched crews digging around the clock. But, what if rescuers had not been in time? What if the well had collapsed around Jessica and she was smothered on live TV singing nursery rhymes? CNN was A-Okay with broadcasting a tragedy or a happy ending – as long as they had eyeballs. Those eyeballs – a big slice of America – lapped up this personal disaster as amusement, and thus Newsertainment was born.

In the 30 years since Baby Jessica brought great ratings, News Directors push every story as if its lightening in a bottle, hoping to convince viewers to watch longer. Fox is an egregious abuser of this programming crutch, and their elderly viewers must be marinaded in cortisol from the daily stress response of being bludgeoned with cyrons screaming BREAKING NEWS!! at the bottom of their cathode ray screens.

In those 3 decades Newsertainment infiltrated every level of programming, giving birth to Reality TV: a format inexpensive to produce that the public confused with Actual Reality.

Reality TV took over television and bestowed upon the American public ‘Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire’ and such cultural icons as Mama June, Snookie and the entire Kardashian clan. The public loved to snicker about Ozzy Osbourne’s substance abuse, and D List stars talking about their addictions was a fine good time. Singing contests were better with someone like William Hung to humiliate. Nothing was too trivial or serious to make into Reality TV. You could watch a show about everything from a pre-pubescent beauty pageant contestant getting exploited by her mother (and the production company), to a vicious bully firing people arbitrarily.

People began to confuse the characters edited for broadcast with being real people. The lines between Actual Reality and Reality TV blurred.

‘The Media’ (not journalists) began to insert themselves into the story, hoping for ever more eyeballs. Expert panels turned into people shouting over one another – because who doesn’t like a good, mean fight? News became factoids and infotainment while Reality TV is nothing like Actual Reality.

In the end viewers tuned out of the experiment of Newsertainment. It’s as simple as that. The product became unwatchable and people stopped trusting news they get from The Media. And why should they? What little bit that isn’t fluff and glurge isn’t well researched or edited for want of researchers and editors in most news rooms.

The Media’s treatment of News as entertainment and Entertainment as reality blurred the lines to the point that it was inevitable America would end up with a POTUS #45.

Balloon Boy was just one brick on a path paved with bad decisions that brings us to the open grave of my beloved industry. It’s heartbreaking watching the few reporters left in the industry (there are 60% fewer reporters now than at the peak in the 1990s) trying to fill hundreds of hours of programming, or try to feed the continual beast of web site content. That content gets more and more diluted so gets fewer and fewer eyeballs, and the viscous circle continues.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see News recover. I do know that people like my News Director bashed News over the head with a shovel, and I’ll never forgive him for that.

I’d like to ask a favor: The next time you see a breaking story that’s not really a breaking story – don’t watch it. Perhaps you come across a grisly story of a tortured toddler – please don’t click. Trust me – you’ll live not knowing the gory details of how a dog mauled a baby, or exactly *how much* filth is caused by hoarding 50 dogs, or how terribly that toddler was tortured.

When a piece from a once-respectable publication (I’m looking at you Time) is ‘How To Find And Keep Love’ or ‘POTUS’ Top 10 Tweets Of All Time!’ could you just scroll past?

You don’t need to watch or encourage pregnant teens being exploited for their mistakes or their counterparts who wail and gnash their teeth because daddy bought the wrong color Mercedes.

Clicks and eyeballs will ultimately drive programming back to News. The only way we stop getting glurge, fluff and bullshit is if we stop consuming it. It’s that simple.

Keep clicking on crap and all we’ll get is crap. Idiocracy will look like a documentary and stories like Balloon Boy will win the Pulitzer. For the love of information – STOP CLICKING!

It wasn’t an agenda, dammit. It was information.

trump-rope-tree-journalist

Welcome to the post-fact world.

It is a place where your opinion is as good as empirical proof. You’re ‘feels’ count as much as peer-reviewed Scientific Evidence. And if what you don’t like is on tape ? Wave your hands and repeat this magic charm: “Lib-rul Mee-Dia, Lib-rul Mee-Dia, Lib-rul Mee-Dia” and suddenly proof of your candidate boasting “Grab Them By The Pussy!!” isn’t sexual assault anymore.

Don’t like those pesky ‘facts’ the Lügenpresse has inconveniently dug up? Vilify them and threaten them with murder! Why not? The GOP Presidential candidate is openly encouraging physical violence against the Press, saying they have too much freedom and should be jailed. It’s bad enough this bloviating Fascist (with a capital F) is saying it, but he’s doing so to the cheers of tens of millions of Americans rabid to destroy our First Amendment rights – and all with the endorsement and monetary backing of the Republican Party.

Now we are asked to indulgently chuckle when Deplorables wear shirts advocating murdering the Press, and the overthrow of our Constitution.

I know several journalists who are near the breaking point: Burnout, depression, disgust and hopelessness now have a new colleague: FEAR. They are all are asking if it is worth it to be constantly vilified and have your motives questioned or be outright disbelieved, all while being terrifically underpaid and having to face a shitstorm when they print actual facts.

At the same time I know dozens of out of work journalists who are dying a million deaths at this election’s coverage and the propaganda churning out 24/7. We feel helpless and wish we could use our expertise to bring some context to stories that are either ignored or blown out of proportion. We long to put a halt to the continual indignation cycle the News has become.

When corporations pulled the plug on Newspapers and quit funding Television and Radio Newsrooms adequately, and when they decided clicks were more important than truth they fired tens of thousands of people whose job it was to research and write about facts. Most folks don’t realize the skill it takes for a producer to research any given subject, and put together pieces and write questions for their anchors. It is a lost art.

People don’t realize it, but all of those unemployed people were the screen that separated the facts from the bullshit. We gave you a baseline from which to start the discussion about social and economic issues, as well as local and international events. It wasn’t an agenda, dammit. It was information.

But, you fired us – and they fired us. They couldn’t make enough profit by employing an adequate number of educated professionals to ensure accuracy and excellence. You couldn’t be arsed to pay for a quality product. Do you pay $10 a month for Netflix but won’t pony up $5 to subscribe to a news site like the New York Times? Congratulations – you’re part of the problem.

The collapse of Traditional News has left a void that blogs have filled, which has given rise and fed the needs of modern Conspiracy Theorists.

I used to deal with Conspiracy Theorists when I was a Talk Radio Host in the 80s and 90s, before Talk was all taken over by screeching hatred, thanks to the Mays brothers of Cheap Channel fame. People like this were a novelty and a hoot to put on the air. The longer they talked the more they just showed how bug-nuts crazy they were. FWIW: Just like today, the Conspiracy Theorists then glommed onto the New World Order, The Illuminati, The Jews and the UN taking over the US. I’ve been hearing that any day now the Dems are coming for your guns. Any. Day. Now. Oh, and Chemtrails are REAL, man (and fluoride and vaccines). None of that has changed in 30 years.

What has changed is that AM radio was taken over by the Alt-Right a quarter of a century ago, when the Mays Brothers shit canned anyone who wasn’t Frog Marching to their ultra-conservative tune. Liberal, Progressive, Middle-of-the-Road and Soft Republicans (those who believed in compromise) were no longer welcome in their 500 station cross-country monopoly that had a stranglehold on the industry.

Soon AM radio became a vacuum of hate speech and lies. Rush Limbaugh defended his pathological lying by saying he was an entertainer, not a news person. Glenn Beck simultaneously cheated thousands of old people out of their life savings in a bogus gold investment scheme, while managing to poison them with convoluted non-sensical conspiracies about Obama’s secret S.S. Civilian Army and the Boston Bombing ‘Cover-Up’. Anti-Journalist and Supreme Radio Hack Sean Hannity was rewarded for years of lying on behalf of the GOP with a plum job at Fox, where it appears Trump’s hand is up his puppet ass this very moment.

AM Talk Radio encouraged sick, gullible, uneducated and mentally unstable people to plumb the depths of their paranoia. No conspiracy was too obscure or far-fetched, and for these lost souls that conspiracy made them feel smarter than everyone else and in control.

The saturation of the AM dial with non-stop conspiracies is what tilled the ground for this current Conspiracy Theory movement.

The internet, which tends to make smart people smarter and dumb people dumber, has given these Conspiracy Theorists an echo chamber that validates them and gives their insane theories credibility. They are no longer at the margins of media, where people point out just how mentally unstable they sound. They don’t have to wait on hold to get on the air and be crazy – they can go online 24/7 and get their biases confirmed and their paranoia stoked. Now, people like Alex Jones are revered, instead of being revealed for the whack-job charlatan he really is.

30 years of encouraging the worst in people and stoking paranoia leads in a direct line to Candidate Trump, and the flaming Porta-Potty of his campaign this election cycle.

Sure, Trump may not get elected tomorrow, but the Conspiracy Theorists won’t be going away any time soon. They’ve been emboldened by a misogynistic, bigoted, racist, homophobic candidate. Their nuttery has been sanctioned by the GOP, and their hypocrisy encouraged by Evangelical Christians who apparently think the Commandments are actually the 10 Suggestions.

If Trump loses expect to see these people lose it mentally, because people in positions of power (I’m looking at you Paul Ryan and Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell and John McCain) haven’t insisted on the Facts being recited any time in recent memory. They chose, instead, to endure the repeated lies for the sake of political expedience.

There’s a smorgasbord of conspiracies to choose from. Would you like a Truther, Birther or Vaxxer conspiracy? Can I interest you in some Jadehelm? Or, would you like something from Secretary Clinton? She is, after all, a dead, sick, Manchurian Candidate who murders political opponents.

Or, would you like the total bullshit conspiracy being screamed by Trump in full-throated rage that the election system is rigged if he doesn’t win– and that it’s being rigged by the Press? You know – the conspiracy that has called for the open murder by hanging of the Fourth Estate, while simultaneously choking the shit out of the Constitution until it dies.

Is it any wonder my friends still left working in the Press are disillusion and scared shitless?

If you’re not concerned you should be, because they’re just getting warmed up,  and no matter who wins it’s going to be a very long 4 years. I’ve a feeling they’re equally as poor at winning as they are at losing.

Oh, and don’t bother arguing the facts with these folks, it’s a waste of time.

Lack of evidence is proof of conspiracy.

It’s a Post Fact World, baby. Strap in.

The Barber and the Campfire Girl

camp-fire-girlThe first time I was skeeved on by a man I was 9 – he was the barber up at Laurel Canyon and Strathern, across from the 7-11.

I walked home alone from school once in a while. He would talk to me when I would walk by. One day he offered me a dollar to stay and talk with him for a while. I felt uneasy, but he was an adult, so I went inside and sat down in a chair. I could see into his back room and the walls plastered with hard core porn, there must have been hundreds of magazine pages.

Seeing the pictures made me scared and I got up to leave; as I did so the barber insisted on picking me up to see ‘how much I weighed’. I remember trying to maneuver away and him grabbing and lifting me, his hands across my non-existent breasts.

Just then a customer came in, and I remember the barber getting flustered and telling the confused customer that I was his niece as I made my escape. I was shaking so hard it was difficult to walk home. I said nothing to my mother, instinctively knowing I would get yelled at.

I NEVER – EVER – rode my bike past or walked past his shop again. I avoided that place like the plague. I would turn left at the light and walk down to Cantara (praying he wouldn’t see me at the only light we could use) or ride my bike behind the Corner Store, using their parking lot to avoid riding in front of his shop.

At 9 years old I learned that men could be predatory, and the barber made me feel unsafe in my own neighborhood.

Don’t tell me you’re sorry – speak up yourselves! Give voice to your story, or put a stop to harassment and assault whenever or wherever you see it. #ItsNotOkay #SexualHarassmentIsReal #NotOkay

 

Uncle Conrad’s Hot Throat Cream

claudia-kcmo-1When I hosted the morning show at KCMO, in Kansas City, Conrad Dobler exposed himself to me on a regular basis in the studio. A former Oakland Raider, he was dubbed ‘The Dirtiest Player in Football’.

He once whipped it out and asked if I wanted some of ‘Uncle Conrad’s Hot Throat Cream’ for my sore throat. He would stick maxi pads to my desk marked with a red sharpie, and even defaced a picture of my child.

The GM refused to put a stop to his behavior, saying with a shrug, “What can I do?” Dobler’s harassment became so bad I abandoned my desk in the talk pit, instead sharing a desk in the small room between the AM & FM studios with a lady who was fighting her own sexism battles.

I didn’t speak out because women in radio who complained about sexual harassment never worked again.

Oh, and the Asshole GM told a bunch of other GMs I’d sued them for sexual harassment, even though I hadn’t. It brought my price down at my next job.

This shit is REAL. #NotOkay

Grab Them By The Pussy!!!

orville-redenbacher

In February of 1994 I spent an evening with Orville Redenbacher’s hand welded to my ass against my will.

I was a talk show host at KHOW in Denver. There was a cross-promotion at the station with Redenbacher and it involved an in-studio interview, and both of us doing personal appearances at the Wyncoop Brewery (Governor Hickenlooper’s place).

When I met Orville he was in a gray suit with a white shirt and the iconic bow tie. I went to shake his hand – he was in his 80s – but he grasped my hand and pulled me forward in the tiny studio, looking for a hug. Surprised, I complied, and found the old coot’s hands all over my ass, and he tried to kiss me. I fended him off, and we did the interview. He flirted with me during the commercials.

Before he left he gave me his phone number and told me he’d love to have me come visit him in San Diego where he lived. He gave me a grin and pinched my ass. I was flabbergasted. Folks at the station ribbed me for the handsy old perv’s behavior – made me feel bad that Redenbacher has harassed me.

That evening at the event I was prepared, but since it was a joint appearance I couldn’t separate myself from him. When I showed up he did another grope-hug, trying to kiss me on the mouth, and put his hand on my ass. There it stayed, rubbing circles and occasionally squeezing my toned 30 year old ass. I really didn’t know what to do. He was a powerful, famous man who was an important client to the station. So I let him rub, pinch, pat and squeeze my ass the whole time.

When the appearance was over and he’d made me promise to call him in San Diego I felt like I needed a Silkwood shower. I disentangled myself from his 17 arms and gaping maw and went to gather my coat and briefcase.

Suddenly Orville’s grandson, who had been traveling with him, was looming over me. “Don’t even THINK of calling Grandpa.”

“What?”

“I saw you all over him and saw him give you his number. We screen his calls. We keep him away from gold diggers,” he snarled. He said again for emphasis, “Don’t even THINK of calling grandpa.”

I was stunned. The old octopus had been all over me for hours, and yet his grandson saw ME as the aggressive party. The obnoxious shit stood there and tried to gaslight me through physical intimidation.

I never called good old Orville. But you can bet your sweet ass I saved his phone number. I have it in a book that served as my phone book from my teens to my 30s. I kept it to remind myself that I hadn’t dreamed the whole disgusting episode.

Remember – this is REAL. It is happening to your sister, your mother, your wife and your friends. It’s time to change the paradigm.

#SexualAssaultIsReal #NotOkay

This, That and Renewing Social Contracts

New Years Eve 2015

One thing about writing is that it forces you to look at things more deeply. What I’ve discovered over the last month is that it’s very easy to find negative things that people are willing to share. That limitless ability for the negative is, in fact, very limiting for a writer. Negativity begets negativity and it leaves little room for solutions.

It’s so easy to find unbelievably stupid things on Facebook or Twitter, and I don’t want to have to go looking for them anymore.

To put it another way: I’d rather stub my toe in surprise at the idiocy of some people’s vitriol rather than grab a hammer and smash my toes with it by looking for ugly things on purpose.

So, in the spirit of the New Year and new beginnings I’m tweaking the format and presentation of my blog.

I’m no longer limiting myself to the things I’m too polite to put on your wall. I’ll still do that, don’t get me wrong, but there’s a whole big wide world out there to be dissected, and I mean to get to it.

With a new direction comes a new name: This About That.

I appreciate anyone who’s made it this far, and hope you’ll indulge me as I tinker with the format, and try to get it to where I want this blog to be.

Enough, then, on the house keeping.

Let’s get on with this, shall we?

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New Years is always a time to take stock about things (no this isn’t going to be a listicle). I want to talk about Social Contracts and how important they are to civilized life.

What is a Social Contract? The short version is that it’s the moral and political obligations we, as citizens, have with each other and the state to form the society in which we live. It’s basically what makes us behave and what makes a society liveable. Some are laws, others are rules and manners.

I think the whole rules and manners portion of the Social Contract has been sorely tested in the last decade. Most people have become self-centered and egotistical in a way we couldn’t have imagined at the turn of the century. Those unpleasant traits make for unpleasant fellow citizens.

The problem is they don’t see themselves as fellow citizens because the whole world revolves around them. When you think it’s all about you, you excuse any kind of selfish behavior. Because that’s what bad behavior is – pure selfishness.

There are many different ways you can be selfish and break the Social Contract, and one of the biggest ways is being a bad neighbor. Screwing with the place where people live and are trying to enjoy their days off is inviting trouble.

If you live in a condo or an apartment then a bad neighbor is the one who blares their music or TV. They’re the ones who argue and slam doors. It sounds like they’re practicing Riverdance in clogs upstairs. They’re selfish and bludgeon you with the sounds of their life, and think nothing of it.

The suburbs have their issues, too. Take my neighbor, for instance. She did not mow her back yard all summer, and let the front yard go to weeds thigh high. We put up with it until August, when we finally called the city. She ignored the first notice completely. She got around to hitting some stuff in the front with a weed whacker after the second notice, but never raked it up. She never did another bit of yard work this year. It will come as no surprise that she has not shoveled her walk once this winter, leaving the sidewalk covered in ice that people have to walk over to get to the mailboxes.

What motivates her to be such a bad neighbor? She doesn’t work outside the home, so it’s not an issue of never being there to do it. So what’s the problem with just doing the bare minimum to keep it legal? She knows better, and bought a house in a nice middle class neighborhood and then came in and shitted up the place. She liked the way the neighborhood looked, but was just too selfish to keep her house up like the rest of us, and it affects our property values. She is not keeping up the Social Contract morally or legally.

I’ll tell you who else breaks the Social Contract in my neighborhood: The neighbor 2 blocks away who leaves their dog out all day long to bark and bark and bark. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live next door to that poor, tortured beast. Who does that to an animal they love? Who does that to their neighbors? A selfish person who doesn’t give 2 craps about the Social Contract, that’s who.

One of my pet peeves for Social Contracts is driving while texting or talking on your phone without a hands free device. How could you be so selfish? Even where it’s legal you should not be doing it because it’s dangerous. It is morally wrong to put the life of everyone around you at risk while you stare at a 4 inch screen or hold the phone to your ear unable to respond properly to an emergency situation. Yet, I know at least one person who reads this will do this very thing. Why? No respect for their fellow citizens or the Social Contract. The notion that you’re above it all.

You see it everywhere you look: People bring their dogs into the supermarket or pharmacy. I once saw a woman at Walgreens put her dog on the counter and it immediately sat down. She had no idea why I might be disgusted. She was not only clueless, she was absolutely offended at me and told me to mind my own business. As if it wasn’t my business that her dog’s ass was sitting where I was supposed to put my items to be rung up. Staggering selfishness.

If you’ve traveled by airplane anytime since 2001 you will have noticed how aggressively rude and the-world-revolves-around-me-selfish travelers have gotten. There’s a marvelous Instagram account devoted to pictures of passengers who simply can’t observe a modicum of decorum. It’s called Passenger Shaming. Check it out. It’s wonderfully awful, and shows people at their selfish worst.

Another way people behave selfishly is by angrily wearing their politics on their sleeve, and expecting yes-men agreement from all who read it. It seems the more bitterly divided we’ve become as a society the more the Social Contract becomes strained when it comes to partisanship and being polite. Personally, I’m sick of the unvarnished hatred that’s become the norm in this country. People think nothing of putting hurtful, hateful posts about opposing political views on their Facebook wall, knowing full well that many people who read it will be offended. They’re not doing it to change minds and hearts, they’re doing it to be hurtful. They’re violating the manners clause of the Social Contract, by selfishly expecting people to read their offensive rantings and put up with it silently.

The point is too many people are self-absorbed and have adopted the notion that the rules don’t apply to them. The question I have is this: Are you one of them? Are there small ways that you fudge the contract? Do you ignore inconvenient rules? If you do, take a minute reflect on what it means to society when you put yourself first at the expense of others. It encourages bad behavior in everyone.

If you do uphold the Social Contract I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart.

So, at this time of the year – the time of resolutions and fresh beginnings – lets take the opportunity to renew our commitment to being a better member of society. Be the good example others need and know that you’re doing the right thing. Do it for yourself and because it’s the right thing to do. Do it because it makes the world a better place.

Have a great 2015.